An unfunny thing happened to me on the way to the bookshop.
I had been fighting - an appropriate word, in the circumstances - to get across town, trying to reach Chess and Bridge from the Courtauld Library in less than an hour (having left the library at ten past five, and the shop closing at six) by public transport. After a bus had trudged up Regent Street at something rather less than walking pace, I gave up when I found that Oxford Circus underground station had been closed to prevent overcrowding, the subsequent overcrowding above ground reaching such proportions that when the gates were opened I remained in the queue for several minutes without actually getting any closer to the entrance. So I decided to go to Foyles instead, and having found and bought the book I wanted, I walked up Charing Cross Road towards Burger King to get some food, of a sort, down me before heading off to the LRB.
When I tried to get across Oxford Street, a task which, given that the green man was showing, should not have proved too difficult, I was forced to stop. First one cyclist, then another, zoomed across the pedestrian crossing as if neither the crossing, nor the red light, nor indeed the unfortunate pedestrians existed. They were not, in fact, the first and second cyclists that I had had to try and avoid that day, they might have been the fourth or fifth, and for whatever reason, the fifth was one too many.
Whatever the reason, I had had reasons enough. The arrogance, the disregard for other people's safety, the last, lousy hour, the struggle with the traffic, the persistent experience of nobody in the London traffic giving a stuff for anybody else trying to use the same road, the fact that it was raining, the anxiety and fear provoked by the possibility of the Conservatives winning the election. There are always reasons enough, in a major city, for there to be one reason too many. Reasons enough for anger to take the place of reason. I get angry too easily, and neither London nor the world in general make it any harder. Nor do reckless and stupid cyclists. I had had enough of the world in general, of London in particular and of this individual cyclist as the personification of both. He didn't hit me. He didn't even come close to hitting me. But he might have done either, and in the circumstances, lacking any further reserves of patience or self-control, I told him to fuck off.
He did not, in fact, fuck off. He got off. He got off his bike, parked it neatly between the pedestrian barrier and the newsagent's hut, and punched me to the ground.
I don't know how hard he hit me. He hit me hard enough so that I suffered from a stiff neck for a few days (indeed, it's still a little stiff ten days later) although they reckoned at A&E, the next morning, that this probably resulted from my head bouncing off the pavement when I fell. I don't even know whether this happened, either - I was too busy scrabbling for my glasses in case they fell off, and in case the cyclist decided to stamp on them if they did. He didn't. He didn't even hit me more than once or twice when I was prone. He got up, and was surprised, on doing so, when, more promptly than he might have liked, I got up too.
You don't really have much chance in a scrap when you're wearing glasses. Or, for that matter, when you're wearing a rucksack. Or, for another matter, when you actually have no idea how to handle yourself in a scrap. I've never had the faintest idea. I never had any idea in the playground, nor at any point in all the years that have gone by since. The other chap, however, knew exactly what he was doing.
Straight in, no sizing up the opponent just in case he had the chance to do some sizing up of his own. Left hand out, fingers splayed, to obstruct the other guy's vision, to distract him from watching for the other hand, and to provide a sighter for that other hand to find its range. Then in with it, a right hand into my face, and over I went, just like I used to, so often, all those years ago in the playground when the demands of my mouth exceeded the dictates of my wisdom. I didn't wear glasses in those days - it's possible to be a swot without them - and I used to get really hurt, in those days, because they didn't get up when they'd knocked you down, they kept on hitting you until a teacher intervened. This time the bloke got up even though no-one else had intervened. I don't know why. Nobody looked like intervening. Nobody looked like they gave a tinker's damn. But maybe he thought they'd take some notice if he sprayed my blood all over them. So he got up. And when he got up, I got up too.
There followed some verbal shadow-boxing to go with the boxing that preceded it. He asked me if I'd like him to come back and do the job properly. I suggested that if he did so, he wouldn't be too hard to trace. He was a courier rider - he had a bit walkie-talkie strapped to his chest, which made it all the more surprising, speed being integral to the courier cyclist's job, that he had time to spare to go and give a kicking to a member of a public. (I suppose he may have been on his break.) I was actually hoping to buy time to see if I could spot any livery, which might have carried the name or number of whoever he was working for, but without any success. He had no more identification than a policeman in the miners' strike. But a little less confidence. He didn't come and finish the job. When we'd stared at one another for a bit - and I'd made an idle suggestion or two to the effect that he'd be vulnerable when he got back on his bike - he did indeed get back on his bike, and cycled away, turning right down Charing Cross Road.
I looked around and nobody was looking back. I was standing, as I had just a minute before been falling, on the corner of one of the busiest junctions in a busy city at one of the busiest times of day. I would guess than rather more than a hundred people must have witnessed what had happened, many of them at close range, many of them probably close enough to count my teeth as my head hit the pavement and my mouth came upon. None of them intervened. I could understand that. But none of them said a word, not even afterwards, not even a word from one of them to ask if I was all right. And, that, I couldn't understand. I couldn't understand in any way I liked.
I wasn't feeling well-disposed towards the world before it happened. It wasn't the right time or the right place or the right circumstances for it. And I've always been more fond of humanity than I am of people - that's why I like cats, I think, because they're solitary creatures who don't trust people more than they're obliged to - and I wasn't feeling too fond of humanity at that time either. Election campaigns are never a good time to feel good about the human race. I don't think I've ever felt good about the human race, not since long before those beatings in the playground. But seeing as the human race was apparently feeling particularly indifferent that evening, I found myself, for the rest of the evening, not only feeling a stiff and swollen neck, but feeling rather less than indifferent towards the human race.